WASHINGTON -- April 13 --The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty today expressed concern over a medical journal report that suggests that in a significant number of cases, condemned prisoners are likely conscious as lethal drugs stop their heart and lungs from functioning.
Today a prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, published an article authored by three U.S. anesthesiologists and one lawyer. The article suggested that some people may be awake and able to feel pain during the execution process, despite the administration of sodium thiopental, which is designed to render a person unconscious while two other drugs are given. The authors studied toxicology reports from 49 executed inmates seven in Arizona, eight in Georgia, 11 in North Carolina and 23 in South Carolina.
They found that 43 out of the 49 inmates had post-mortem blood thiopental levels below that required for surgery. And 21 inmates had levels consistent with awareness. Thus, the authors concluded, lethal injection anesthesia methodology is flawed and some inmates might have experienced awareness and suffering during execution. Diann Rust-Tierney, NCADP executive director, said the report adds to a growing list of concerns about how the death penalty really works.
This report suggests that in a disturbing number of cases, states may be violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment by slowly suffocating prisoners while they are awake, Rust-Tierney said. Clearly we need to take a closer look at this issue. No lethal injection executions should take place if there is a possibility that we are engaging in death by the torture of suffocation.
In most states, lethal injection executions consist of administration of three drugs. First, sodium thiopental is administered to render the prisoner unconscious. Then, pancuronium bromide is administered to cause paralysis. Finally, potassium chloride is given to stop the heart, thus causing death. Without anesthesia, the authors write, the condemned person would experience asphyxiation, a severe burning sensation, massive muscle cramping and finally cardiac arrest. Thus anesthesia is necessary both to mitigate the suffering of the condemned and to preserve public opinion that lethal injection is a near-painless death.
The article was authored by Leonidas G. Koniaris, Teresa A. Zimmers and David A. Lubarsky of the University of Miami School of Medicine and Virginia attorney Jonathan P. Sheldon.
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To read a University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine press release on the report, please visit